THREE POEMS BY JOE BOLTON
A Wreath of Stars: Symsonia, Kentucky, 1914
They’d caught me skimming cream off the top of the churn,
So half that winter I had to go upstairs
Right after supper without my dessert—
No thick-comb honey Mamie stored in jars.
No muscadine, no sunset-colored cake
Sweetened with molasses, no piecrust plumped
With apple or blackberry. Still, what made me ache
The most was missing that music my brother thumped
Out on his guitar while Pap’s fiddle whined
Along like some hurt thing—like the bitch retriever
Hung up in barbed wire for hours, who tried
To eat me alive when I came to uncut her.
I’d climb those stairs like somebody going to heaven
Before he was ready, the loose boards creaking, then breathe
On my frosted-over window till seven
Cold stars shone on the dark sky in a wreath.
The night Pap and my brother didn’t come in
For supper, Mamie told me to go ahead
And eat their peach cobbler. We waited, then—
I watching through my window while she read.
And along towards midnight I saw two figures weaving
Down the road: one tall and lean, the other
Much the same, singing and carefully passing
A thick glass jug between them—Pap and my brother.
They must have saved a month to buy that whiskey.
But leaning together, their sweet breath rising like clouds,
One passed the jug, the other didn’t see,
And the glass broke open on the frozen ground.
They stared down at the spill as at a grave,
Then at each other—with hatred for a minute;
Then knelt down as though praying to be saved
And lapped up every star reflected in it.
Lines for Hank Williams
The way his high voice would break and break down,
Beautifully lonesome, lost . . . who once wrote
A song at gunpoint in a hotel downtown,
Fingers shaking to hold the simple chords.
The world was one long night, endless Nashvilles,
A jambalaya of women, whiskey, and pills.
At the Opry they poured coffee down his throat
Backstage before the show, until he’d cough
And rise, trying to remember his own words.
And once, driving through the dark of night
In a Cadillac with Minnie Pearl, he broke
Into “I Saw the Light,” then broke it off,
His voice losing volume as he spoke:
“There ain’t no light, Minnie. There ain’t no light.”
The Light We Dance Through
This is the afterlife. Her gin-
tinged breath came like a cool
injection in my ear.
We were dancing after midnight in this place
called 32nd Avenue, dancing
over cigarette butts & against
bodies not our own & through a light
of such blue density
it almost wasn’t light at all.
But outside, there were stars,
& though all around us the city was playing games
with its deranged souls,
we danced three times around the parking lot–
a waltz, for chrissake, a fucking
was 1981, & each year
there are fewer & fewer people I’ll admit
as my acquaintances,
& fewer still I’ll dance with,
& it’s probably the case
that, on those all-too-rare occasions,
the light we dance through is the closest
we’ll ever come to any sort of afterlife.
* all poems from The Last Nostalgia: Poems 1982-1990, The University of Arkansas Press, 1999.